El Faro safety legislation awaits Trump sign-off

US Coast Guard inspector checks a bulk carrier's emergency position location device. Credit USCG
US Coast Guard inspector checks a bulk carrier's emergency position location device. Credit USCG

Legislation emphasising new vessel inspection oversight and emergency locater equipment aimed at improving crew safety awaits signing into law by US President Donald Trump.

The Hamm Alert Maritime Safety Act of 2018, part of a marine environment bill, passed Congress on 27 September. It was named after Frank Hamm, a 49-year old seafarer who died, along with 32 others, when his ro-ro vessel El Faro sank in the Bahamas in October 2015 as it attempted to navigate through Hurricane Joaquin while en route from Jacksonville, Florida, to Puerto Rico.

The El Faro sinking, which recorded the highest death toll from a US commercial vessel sinking in almost 40 years, resulted in a federal investigation that produced a list of recommendations to improve safety, such as improving weather information and training, a review of the USCG’s third-party vessel inspection programme, and improving alerts and equipment on the vessels.

John Nadeau, the US Coast Guard’s (USCG’s) assistant commandant for prevention policy, acknowledged to IHS Markit earlier this year that his agency “has an obligation to do better oversight of third parties”, such as classification societies, which issue vessel inspection certificates on the coastguard’s behalf.

The legislation awaiting presidential approval turns that obligation into a mandate. “There shall be within the coastguard an office that conducts comprehensive and targeted oversight of all recognised organisations that act on behalf of the coastguard,” it states. “The staff of the office shall include subject matter experts, including inspectors, investigators, and auditors, who possess the capability and authority to audit all aspects of such recognised organisations.” It gives the USCG two years within the law’s enactment to establish the office.

The legislation also requires an audit of the coastguard’s oversight and enforcement of US-flag vessel safety management plans, including an evaluation of their effectiveness for a range of vessel types and sizes that operate in different regions. It includes assessing the effectiveness of safety management plans in addressing the impact of heavy weather.

Equipment requirements include the fitting of distress signalling and location technology, such as an emergency position indicating radio beacon device for the entire crew of US-flagged vessels. It also directs the USCG to enter negotiations, through the International Maritime Organization, to amend the Safety of Life at Sea Convention to require that all voyage data recorders are installed in a ‘float-free arrangement’ in the event of a sinking.

If there is an accident, for investigation purposes, “the coastguard shall have full, concurrent, and timely access to and ability to use voyage data recorder and audio held by any federal agency in all marine casualty investigations, regardless of which agency is the investigative lead”, the law states.

With every law comes a cost to the industry affected. For laws that address crew safety, mariners and their counterparts onshore can have different opinions when it comes to weighing the costs with the benefits.

Referring to El Faro, Karl Hardesty, a ship master for Grand River Navigation, which operates vessels on the US Great Lakes, told IHS Markit, “Who would have thought that you would see a ship that meets the standards for lifesaving equipment and safety gear, and after such a tragedy, come to find out maybe it wasn’t enough.”

He agreed that any costs related to requirements that improve the ability to locate vessel and crew make sense in helping raise the safety bar.

“I think that for all of us, from the shore side to the operational side, if something happens we want to know why and how it happened. No company wants a devastating accident on their record, and certainly shipboard people want to have a fighting chance when things go bad.”